The Other Spring Class

I suppose I did this to myself: when I was preparing to return to full-time teaching this year after (1) a half-year sabbatical last year and (2) three years prior in an intensive administrative position, I gave our current administration some options: I offered to teach a few familiar required courses and seminars, and I threw in a couple proposals for new seminars and studios. I don’t quite remember how this happened — but I now find myself teaching three brand new seminar/studios and a required lecture course, which I’m totally reassessing since I haven’t taught it for three years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the new specialty courses — “Media and Materiality” and “Urban Media Archaeology” have been awesome, and I’m looking forward to “Libraries, Archives & Databases” — but that lecture course is causing a little trepidation, in no small part because…well, let’s just say it hasn’t been everybody’s favorite class.

Of course nobody loves a required class — and they’re even less likely to love it when it’s, by necessity, a relatively large lecture class (we can’t duplicate guest presentations in multiple sections, so we have to gather all 180 new students in the same lecture hall; it’s simply, sadly a necessary evil of being a crazily big program). But I think the content has a lot of potential: on the first occasion I had to teach the class, in Fall 2008, I frequently thought to myself, wow, I wish I was learning this stuff as a first-semester grad student. And I know many of our previous graduates, who left the program before this class was instituted, said that they regretted not having a similar orientation experience to help themselves develop a broad view of the program, the university, the city, the field, etc., and all their opportunities to participate at those various scales.

My Fall 2008 version of the class tapped into the “craftsmanship” zeitgeist. Sennett’s The Craftsman had just come out, and several other craft-related books — and some new craft-y journals — were soon to follow. As I mentioned in my final lecture,

We used the metaphor of “craftsmanship” [throughout the] semester to think about our various roles as researcher-producers, scholar-activists, producer-mangers, etc., because models of craft ask us to think about the commitment and engagement that…distinguish graduate work. Thinking about our work as craftsmanship, Sennett argues, helps us to get at enduring cognitive models, translatable skills, which, Shoemaker reminds us, are essential in an economy in which many move frequently from job to job. Plus, as we produce material and symbolic forms – films, theories, research papers, etc. – we also produce ourselves as subjects and our social relations; we can investigate “what the process of making…things reveals to us about our selves” (Sennett 8). And thinking about our commitment to and engagement in our work promotes “knowing-in-action,” reflexivity, Gray and Malins say (22-3).

The class was meant to provide an overview of a program that combines theory, practice, and management — threads that, traditionally, many students had kept separate. It was also, as I mentioned earlier, an attempt to provide an introduction to the department and the field, so students could start to orient themselves within it and determine how and where they wanted to make their marks. At some point in the middle of that fall semester, I encountered an article, published in Duke UP’s Pedagogy journal, by several graduate students who expressed their desire for an introductory grad course that “prepare[s] graduate students for taking an active role in shaping the future of the discipline” (Crisco et al. 372). This course would (1) “survey the historical development of the field”; (2) “critically examine some of the key terms presently at the center of debates concerning the defining goals and purposes of the work” in the field; (3) “create a collaborative, explicitly intradisciplinary space within the department to explore the often competing commitments of our discipline and to articulate the stakes (individual, fieldwide, institutional, cultural) of the various approaches to reforming” the field; and (4) “provide students with opportunities to locate themselves and their professional commitments in relationship to the field” (ibid. 369). I felt to me like that’s what we were doing in my class, and that was reassuring.

But some people, I learned, didn’t want to waste time on self-reflection, orientation, and exploration of “epistemological and methodological diversity.” They just wanted to learn how to make films. A long while later, I discovered an article in The Review of Higher Education in which Michael Gunzenhauser and Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin suggest that “students obsessed with instrumental goals are resistant to challenges to their time and their existing (and often unquestioned) assumptions and conceptions about their professional practice.” Of course I don’t want to blame my own failures, or the failures of the class, on students’ “instrumentalist” thinking, but I do think this paradigm is the reason for some students’ resistance. The authors also mentioned another risk of such “intro to grad studies”-type classes:

In many ways, it resembles a rite of passage into a discipline—a process of learning the language, developing specific research skills and habits, and reframing past experience and past knowledge. In this model, graduate students learn the cultures of their chosen disciplines—becoming familiar with the institutions associated with them (such as associations, conferences, and journals), perhaps mimicking the characteristics and actions of their mentors early on to “try on” the discipline—and devote themselves to becoming members of a research community. This model infantilizes graduate students, treating them as if they know little of consequence and inviting them to disconnect themselves from prior knowledge and experiences in favor of a superior, enlightened subject position.

While I appreciate the risk, I think we take care not to devalue the students’ own knowledge and experience or make them feel as if they’re there to mimic the “enlightened” faculty members’ practices. To the contrary, we encourage students to cultivate their own interests, their own “subject positions” — and thereby, perhaps, transform the field. That said, while I’m confident the course wasn’t “infantilizing,” I do know that some found it “remedial.” They learned how to do research as freshmen in high school; what more could there be there to learn in grad school?

A lot, actually. I know from personal experience. And even my TA’s, all advanced doctoral students, said they took a lot away from the class.

Joan Wink, Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World (2005): 178-180

I think there is tremendous value in a course that helps one cultivate frameworks for processing — and questioning the assumptions of — the material presented in other content- and skills-based classes; that helps provide a macro-scale overview of — and demystifies — the curriculum as a whole; that helps one reflect on his or her professional and intellectual past and consider how one might want to use his or her graduate experience. I’m going to try my best to make this spring class a useful and, dammit, enjoyable experience. I already have a few students soliciting advice from classmates for me. I’m posting a draft syllabus [file updated 1/8/11], and I welcome constructive feedback.

4 replies on “The Other Spring Class”

Shannon – As a new Media Studies student who will begin next month (and very much looking forward to your class), I have to agree with some of the criticism you’ve noted. Knowing that you were teaching this class, and finding your 2008 class syllabus online, I was able to try to acclimate myself to the course (specifically) and the program (generally), and used the past few months to become acquainted with Sennett and Fletcher as well as some of the additional readings. It’s been 20 years since I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and figured I could use a primer before starting the program, not to mention a reminder of what life in an academic setting is going to be like after more than a decade of managing political campaigns and writing about politics.

Generally, I tend to side with the notion that I’m more much interested in learning how to make documentary films and developing the craft, and much less interested in exploring theory or “epistemological and methodological diversity” (the latter requiring me to dust off a dictionary to partially understand). Even more tedious were some of the seemingly unintelligible (to me) supplemental academic articles/chapters in the syllabus. I know we’re been discouraged from dismissing the readings as a meaningless exercise in “pretentious jargon” written by academics who probably also excel at the Saturday NY Times crossword — the only other place where such vocabulary is probably ever permitted — but I fail to see how an aspiring craftsman (as opposed to a student interested in theory) finds great value in such an exercise when one factors in the aggravation and time-spent in doing so. But I’m certainly game to try. While I’m not sure I’ve ever specifically used geometry or algebra since learning them in high school, I suppose the process itself was useful in the aggregate in a general sense.

But where I really found a real benefit was in the readings of Sennett and Fletcher. I’m only about halfway through The Craftsman, but so far find it an especially useful book in helping me think through why I want to be a craftsman/artist/documentarian, and why that work is important and useful to society. Equally, what I have so far read from The Art of Looking Sideways has forced me to reflect on what it means to create and imagine and visualize. I’m guessing you’ll be moving on to other books for the class this time around, but as someone brand new to this program, I found them both of great value on their own, without the context that you would provide through lectures and classwork. I’m glad I’ve come across both books. Also, I found the various exercises in creating an intellectual autobiography, website, academic plan, etc. all very worthwhile and quite useful in guiding me through the program and better understanding my strengths and weaknesses and interests in moving forward, and am especially interested in the guest presentations as well.

So, from my perspective as an incoming student who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, or what he’s about to know, I found your 2008 approach to be overwhelmingly on the mark from what I’d hope to learn from this introductory required course. It provided me an excellent primer on the program and the field and why I’m in it. The only exception are the parts where there is a heavy reliance on academic theory and research methodology which I suspect will more appeal to those whose focus is such, as opposed to those (like me) who are more interested in the “craft” than the theory.

Regardless, I’m very excited and eager for the Spring and especially looking forward to your UMS course, regardless of the direction or approach you use. I thought I’d offer my admittedly largely ignorant two cents about the introductory course for a program I’ve not yet started.


Thanks so much for your comments, Mark. I’m impressed that you’re been so diligently researching and preparing for the program! And I’m very glad to hear that you’re approaching this class with an open mind. Speaking of open minds: this is in part what “epistemological and methodological diversity” aims to cultivate. It’s about considering new ways of knowing, new modes of thinking, new tools (both technical and methodological) for thinking with (my piece on “Tools and Material Consciousness” addresses these ideas). If you’re interested in documentary, you’ll of course want to consider what it means to “know” something about a subject, and how one can convey that knowledge — or an impression, an emotion, etc. — through various media forms.

We probably won’t be using Sennett’s book in the spring (in large part because, despite its many values, it does contain quite a few slow and/or fallow patches — and my previous students though a few chapters were expendable for our purposes), but a lot of the material I’ve written for the course does reference Sennett and quotes what are for me the most salient passages from his book. As for Fletcher: I think I’ll recommend the book but not require it. You’ll see lots of images from the book in class, though, since I commonly integrate them into my presentations. I’m still working on the reading list for this coming semester, and I welcome your input. I have to wonder, though, which were the “seemingly unintelligible…supplemental academic articles/chapters in the syllabus” that you found “tedious.” I assign very few traditional academic articles for this class — for several reasons: (1) you’ll encounter plenty of “academic” texts in your foundational theory seminar and your other seminars (including some that I teach); (2) I can’t presume that everyone has the theoretical or methodological background required to read and comprehend academic writing (we’ll talk a bit about “how to read theory” in UMS — but you’ll also develop these reading skills as you work through the program); (3) I want the readings for this course to be challenging yet engaging pieces that frame the relationships between theory and practice without being overwhelmingly theoretical or technical themselves; and (4) we’ll actually talk a bit in class about the “myth of academic difficulty” — about the common assumption that in order to “write like a grad student,” one has to write abstrusely. Which pieces did you find tedious? Those assigned by the guest instructors?

Once again, thanks very much for your two cents. I would’ve gladly paid a quarter for them 🙂

Shannon – Thanks for your wonderful response. I have tried to be diligent in getting at least an overview of what some of the introductory courses will be like and really excited for classes to start. Typically, I tend to perform much better in hands-on production-like work than when it comes to more abstract concepts and theories, so I thought I’d spend some time trying to get a little familiar with the sort of challenges I’ll encounter in that respect.

Looking at the supplemental readings that I references, I just realized they came from assignments in a Media Studies: Ideas course (which I guess makes more sense), not from your 2008 UMS class. In particular, an article by Mark Hansen (“Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society, 23(2-3)(2006): 297-306) nearly made me scream…as did a few other assigned readings.

I’m in no position to offer any suggestions as far as your reading assignments other than to say that any material Sennett or Fletcher that causes us to reflect on what it means to create and why our society is critically dependent on the work of others (the media, documentarians, artists, writers, etc) to understand the world around them, and that further leads to what are the responsibilities and ethical obligations on the creators of that information.

Regardless of what you choose, I’m looking forward to your class.


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